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Koji Uehara embracing role as Red Sox closer

Brings energetic approach to job

Reliever Koji Uehara has brought high-fivin’, teammate-huggin’, fist-pumpin’, glove-slappin’ excitement to the Red Sox.JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

The question was relayed through an interpreter, but Koji Uehara understood it perfectly.

After taking the ball in the ninth inning for the fourth time in five days, he was asked how his body was feeling.

For a pitcher who has been one of the more reliable out of the Red Sox bullpen this season but who at 38 years old is also one of the oldest, it’s been a constant consideration.

But since Uehara took over the team’s closing duties June 21, his durability has been an even greater focal point.

Before his translator got a chance to get the words out, Uehara cut him off.


Uehara knew the schedule. He was aware that after 20 games in 21 days, the Sox had a rare open date on the schedule.

With a wide grin, Uehara said to a small pack of reporters, “Tomorrow: Day off.”

The rest is more than deserved. Last week, the Sox called on him to close the door four times.

In the first three, he was untouchable, flooding the zone with strikes (33 of his 44 pitches) in three hitless innings and punching out six in the process of recording saves in three straight games for the first time in his career.

Between Joel Hanrahan’s season-ending Tommy John surgery and the struggles of his successor, Andrew Bailey, the instability that’s cursed Sox closers this season — and ostensibly since the departure of Jonathan Papelbon in 2011 — was clear.

But for a flash, Uehara has offered some certainty.

Even when he briefly faltered Sunday, giving up a tying ninth-inning homer to the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista that ricocheted off the Sports Authority sign above the Monster, he made sure the damage was minimal, keeping the game tied and allowing the Sox to win it in the bottom of the inning.


“He’s been great,” said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. “He’s been great all year. He’s a strike thrower and basically his split is tough and his fastball gets on you. He hides it real well. He’s been great for us.”

Even Bailey, who relinquished the closer role to Uehara after giving up seven earned runs in five appearances between June 10-20, has marveled at Uehara’s consistency.

“He’s awesome,” Bailey said. “He’s fun to watch, man. He’s unbelievable. He’s definitely been our guy down there all year that’s been that rock that you can call on at any time and he’s ready to go.

“It’s definitely fun to watch. It’s like a video game to him. It’s pretty awesome.”

But, as has been the case with the righthander all season, how his body responds as his workload increases will be important in a more stressful role.

“I have to listen to my body,” Uehara said. “If I don’t listen to it and get hurt, that would be detrimental to the team.”

The communication between Uehara and manager John Farrell is consistent and clear.

Early in the day Friday, Uehara and Farrell spoke during batting practice.

He was coming off the second of those three straight saves, and it was the first time he had saved games on consecutive days since 2010.

Once Uehara went through his throwing program, Farrell checked to see if he would be available to throw that night.

“I told John I would be ready if the situation arises,” Uehara said.


After Uehara came on in the ninth and pitched a 1-2-3 inning, he said, “I’m going to tell them that I’m not available tomorrow.”

His body actually felt better during the third game than the second.

“I felt a little bit fatigued but not as crazy as the last game,” Uehara said.

As much as he has to listen to his body, he also has to watch the numbers.

Uehara already has appeared in 36 games this season after pitching in 37 all of last year.

He’s also already pitched on no days of rest eight times this season after doing it nine times a year ago.

But these are things Farrell said he would have had to take into consideration whether Uehara was in the closer’s role or not.

“It’s no different than any other day when he was not in this role,” Farrell said. “We check in with him as we do with every reliever on their availability on a given night. In his case, sure, we have to be a little bit more cautious here, but the last two outings have not been very high-stress even though they were the ninth inning. He’s had some outings earlier and recently where he’s thrown 25-30 pitches and those have been more stressful.”

The higher frequency of use has done nothing to Uehara’s effectiveness. He still hasn’t given up a run on no days of rest, pitching 7⅔ innings and striking out 12 while giving up just three hits.


Even though Uehara’s job title has changed, Farrell said the reason he knew Uehara would be successful was because he treats it the same regardless of the inning.

This season, he’s pitched the sixth (three games, 0.00 ERA, three strikeouts), seventh (four games, 0.00 ERA, two strikeouts), eighth (22 games, 3.20 ERA, 31 strikeouts), and ninth innings (6 games, 1.50 ERA, 10 strikeouts).

“Maybe in this role, there’s a little more notoriety for him, but it hasn’t changed his approach one bit,” Farrell said.

Having been in the closer’s role before with the Orioles and Rangers, Uehara echoed the sentiment.

“It’s something that I’ve experienced before so there’s not added enthusiasm or joy or any of that,” he said.

The key word, of course, being “added.”

What has remained consistent about Uehara is the euphoria he shows after a clean inning. But the energy is a direct result of what he does on the mound, and while he’s on it, his demeanor is businesslike.

“He’s a human being, so he’s got a personality to him,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “It’s not like he’s goofing off or doing anything like that. He just gets excited. It’s actual, realistic excitement. He gets to three outs and no runs scored, he gets excited and gets pumped up, but at the same time he’s trying to get three outs and if it takes four outs to get to three outs, he’s going to get them. He’s definitely professional.”


Still, it’s the stuff that memes are made of, and by the sound of it, Farrell has seen some of them.

“Based on some of the YouTube video, he enjoys every time he walks out on the mound,” Farrell said. “When he’s slapping guys in the head or giving high-fives. Whether it’s the ninth inning or the seventh inning, he’s fun to watch pitch. He’s been a great teammate, a lot of energy.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at